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Micro-credentials in 2019: The Ultimate Guide for Educators


Adele Cochrane
Content & Multimedia Assistant

Microcredentials are the shorter, sharper learning opportunities that reflect the reality of today’s economy and the future of work.

But with the avalanche of reports, discussion papers, media releases and op-eds in the tertiary education space in the last year, it can be hard to keep up.

Today, we’ll get you up to speed on what’s been happening since we published our last article on micro-credentials in 2018.

Let’s dive in!


Key takeaways

  • Micro-credentials are becoming necessary to keep up with digital innovations in a way that traditional qualifications cannot.
  • Governments around the world are trialling ways to recognise micro-credentials officially, and some are incorporating them into education frameworks.
  • In Australia, the AQF Review will be released shortly, determining what place micro-credentials will have in our accreditation system. Insiders predict they will be incorporated in the AQF.
  • While technical skills dominate micro-credential enrolments at present, the future will see demand for more information literacy skills as machine learning replaces hard skills.
  • Education providers can take three key steps to set their microcredential offerings up for future success.

Micro-credentialing, digital badges, nano degrees… recap please!


Micro-credentials are short, low-cost, and often online informal learning experiences and mini-qualifications targeted at a specific skill or industry. As such they can be highly relevant and applicable to industry contexts.

Upon completion, a student can often display a digital badge or certification on their resume, LinkedIn, or other online profiles.

Providers around the internet call them a variety of names, such as nano-degrees, micro-masters, micro-subjects, open badges, mini-degrees and more. They are all the same thing – though the confusing language around them can make it hard to pin down.

Micro-credentials started gaining traction after Udacity released “nanodegrees” in 2015, tailored to the training needs of industry tech and telecomms giants like Google. The trend toward industry-tailored learning continues today.

1. Why are micro-credentials so popular now?


The future of work


Short courses aren’t new, and neither is professional development. What is new is the transformations that the workforce is undergoing, thanks to technology, including automation, the gig economy, and online collaboration platforms.

In this changing workforce, people will need to upskill rapidly and continually in response to new and emerging skill sets – which, because they move so quickly, are not covered by Australian institutional frameworks.

Even more traditional occupations like accounting and finance are facing technological disruption, forcing workers to continually upskill or face obsolescence.



In the Candlefox Marketplace, prospective students are upskillers.

The future of learning


So, what does this mean for education? A dramatic shift in how students approach their education, with many quick to hail micro-credentials as the “shorter, sharper” solution.

For young and mature-age students alike, preparing for the future of work does not necessarily mean high school, then a degree program followed by a career. The new reality demands a fluid, adaptable and personalised approach that corresponds to changes in the working environment.

For students this might mean completing a traditional qualification, stacking micro-credentials to create a custom “package”, or a combination of both to maximise employability.


40% of existing degrees will soon be obsolete, predict some university leaders.
NCVER

AQF courses of 1-2 years in duration may become less relevant in many areas.
Contextual Research for the Australian Qualifications Framework Review

In the Candefox marketplace, we have seen the explosion of the micro-credentials trend first-hand, and data from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) supports this. 

Enrolments in national training programs has been falling at the same time as a notable upswing in enrolments for shorter skill sets and standalone subjects since 2015.

The NCVER points out that micro-credentials have the potential to replace much in-house training for employers, due to the following benefits:

  • For employees: More portability, recognised across organisations and industries
  • For employers: Cost-effective, flexible, and efficient way to certify employee learning outcomes.
by 2030
0%

workers will need to switch occupational categories

average 15yr-old will likely have

0

jobs
over 5 careers



estimated shelf life is now at

0yrs

 for skills

2. Developments in 2019


Micro-credentials have been picking up steam internationally, with governments around the world moving to integrate them into their education systems.


USA

In the US, more than 10 state education agencies are running official pilot programs for micro-credentials, with 5 more trialling micro-credentials in some form. And according to a report by non-profit Digital Promise, we have reached the tipping point in the development of an “emerging micro-credentialing ecosystem.”

Depending on which way we lean, we could end up with:


    • A set of incoherent informal credentials which could confuse employer and limit employer buy-in, or
    • Standardisation and vetting, perhaps with a central digital repository for digital badges earned, encouraging buy-in from employers.

    Digital Promise have themselves been busy developing a set of micro-credential programs for educators.

    They are designed around a common set of traits:


    • Competency-based: learners must show that they can apply the skill
    • On-demand
    • Built on research-backed methodologies
    • Shareable: credentials in form of digital badges
    • Personalised: choose courses that meet precise needs

    Education is an industry that expects high levels of continuing education from its teachers. Yet educators have only been recognised for formal upskilling and learning. Digital Promise’s modules aim to change that. By formalising achievements, skills and abilities, it seeks to make informal learning more transparent to both employers and teachers.


    New Zealand follows Europe

    New Zealand has recently implemented official recognition of micro-credentials, after running three successful pilots with different organisations. Rather than becoming part of the training framework, they sit alongside it.

    Training schemes offered by non-registered providers, including individual units, can be accredited if there’s evidence a genuine need on the part of the learner – or other stakeholders, such as employers. 

    Following the lead of Ireland, Scotland and Denmark, New Zealand has recognised micro-credentials as being types of credentials that are defined by their relation to major qualifications.

    So, for instance, a credential could be equivalent to a single unit from a Diploma, making it a Level 4 unit. These types of credentials can be stackable into a degree, or stand alone, giving learners more flexibility and pathways into official qualifications, whether they choose to use it or not.

    3. The future of micro-credentials in Australia


    Meanwhile, Australia’s credentialing system is at risk of falling behind, while others fear that the proliferation of digital badges and micro-credentials, along with unclear language, will cause still more chaos and confusion.

    New Zealand’s move has generated predictions across the industry that Australia will follow their example. The Australian Qualifications Framework is currently under review by Victoria University’s Professor Peter Noonan, and there’s speculation that it will incorporate smaller credentials into its accreditation system.

    This would then “unbundle” qualifications into smaller units which may then be “rebundled” into other degrees, allowing more flexibility and personalisation – reflecting to what the booming micro-credentials market has told us students want.

    The big question is, will the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA), the current regulator, introduce a framework that will allow people to integrate microcredentials into their continuing education?


    The argument that microcredentials should be incorporated into AQF

    Incorporating microcredentials into the existing system may solve some of the issues around standardisation and quality assurance, as well as making them more attractive to students. A discussion paper around the AQF review argues that recognising microcredentials through the AQF would make them part of the existing quality assurance system, which would:


    • Make it easier to understand how they relate to other qualifications
    • Help them to count toward a full qualification
    • Make them more portable to different contexts – both in terms of industry, and globally

    The argument that microcredentials shouldn’t be incorporated into AQF

    Insiders aren’t necessarily in agreement, however.


    • Stay innovative and responsive to industry

      Emeritus Professor Beverly Oliver, formerly Deputy Vice-Chancellor Education at Deakin raised concerns that the innovative, adaptable nature of microcredentials is at odds with the slow-moving nature of an official framework. “You don’t want every micro-credential provider to go through a review,” she said. “That will stop the whole thing from happening.”

    • Outdated ‘duration/volume’ measure

      A contextual research paper, released in late 2018, flagged the difficulty of using a duration-based measure of learning outcomes when it comes to on-demand learning. In digital learning, users complete units at their own pace, and it no longer makes sense to use the traditional “this unit is equivalent to X amount of study hours” measure.

    • Effective learning at odds with accreditation systems?

      Education consultant Claire Field, reflecting upon technological improvements to the learning process (such as artificial intelligence) found that best practices can be incompatible with the compliance-based framework of ASQA, leading more students to turn outside the accredited sector.

    “If we highly regulate workforce learning then a lot of participants will bypass it. There is no gain for people in being part of a highly regulated system.”Emeritus Professor Beverly Oliver, formerly Deputy Vice-Chancellor Education at Deakin

    What’s likely to happen with the AQF review?

    The Australian Qualifications Framework Review was due to be completed in late September, however as of publication, no news has surfaced. Professor Noonan indicated that there was “little appetite” for separate, non-formal qualifications, but had raised the idea of an opt-in, credit-based system.

    The best outcome looks to be one that incorporates formal and non-formal accreditation systems which can work together. Liz Johnson, DVC Education Deakin University, is confident that micro-credentials will be incorporated into the AQF once the review is released.

    Regardless of official accreditation status, it seems likely that some form of “lifelong learning account” will come into being. Similar programs have already been implemented in Korea, China, Singapore and Europe.

    This would enable learners to track their credentials, keep track of learning credits, and communicate training and skills history to potential employers – allowing Australians to better navigate the digital work landscape.

    4. Top subject areas and industries for micro-credentials


    The surge in microcredentials is concentrated in a few key topic areas and subjects, which have the highest number of enrolments in general:

    • Business
    • Computer Science
    • Data Analysis
    • IT

    However technical, quantitative and other “hard” skills are predicted to be on the way out with the advent of machine learning, with demand for higher cognitive skills like creativity, critical thinking, complex information processing predicted to increase.

    Even now, 3/4 of employers place equal or more importance on employability skills than they do on technical skills, according to a report by the Department of Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business.


    Information Literacy: A Prime Opportunity

    Aside from this, a survey of employers revealed growing opportunities in the information literacy space. Researchers identified the three areas where human resource managers least expect students to have competency:

    All three abilities fell under an umbrella category of “critical thinking, using quality information and collaboration”, which also happened to be the most highly valued skills category. The report argued that this makes them prime candidates for higher education providers designing microcredentials, as they will be valuable to both learners and employers.

    In general, the survey found that employers are keen for more specific ways to show skills and abilities in recent graduates and potential employees, a gap that micro-credentials are well-positioned to fill.

    5. Key Steps for Providers


    While policy decisions are still forming, what key takeaways are there for education providers considering adding microcredentials to their suite of offerings?

    Professor Oliver made three key recommendations in a recent Deakin Report.


    1. Build trust


    Agree on a clear definition

    Agree on a standard definition and terms across the industry, when possible.


    a micro-credential is a certification of assessed learning that is additional, alternate, complementary to or a formal component of a formal qualification
    Deakin Report

    Set standards

    Align micro-credentials to a formal qualification level, with similar time commitment and academic standards, so it can bear credit and possibly lead to entry into a formal qualification.


    2. Add value


    Give evidence

    that the credential provides highly work-relevant skills, or leads to work opportunities.


    Guarantee value

    in terms of time and money spent.


    Feed into Recognition of Prior Learning

    so that students can use this as a building block for further qualifications.


    3. Aim for sustainability


    Put resources toward assessment

    as this will lead to the integrity and long-term reputation of courses.


    Re-use, relicense, cocreate

    learning assets to keep costs down


    Train industry experts

    as adjunct professors


    Online or blended mode

    is best, since it increases accessibility for mature learners, the people who stand to benefit most from upskilling while remaining in the workforce.


    Machine-readable certifications

    will ensure that credentials are portable, and compatible with online platforms such as job boards and resume sites.

    Professor Oliver said that while micro-credentials are not a silver bullet, if designed well they can complement higher education and extend learning past graduation date.

    “You’re never going to bring them into the formal education system. But we do want to recognise them and bring them under an umbrella.”

    Whatever happens, microcredentials are coming, and the message is clear: employers, employees and students are using them with enthusiasm.

    Whether they will complement our pre-existing tertiary education system or disrupt it substantially rests on policy decisions, but it also depends on how education providers design and market micro-credentials in the years to come.

    Sources


    Australia. Dept of Education and Training (DET). 2018. Review of the Australian Qualifications Framework: Discussion Paper. https://www.education.gov.au/australian-qualifications-framework-review-0

    Business Council of Australia (BCA). 2018. Future-proof Australia’s post-secondary education and skills system. https://www.bca.com.au/future_proof_australia_s_future_post_secondary_education_and_skills_system. 

    Department of Education and Training – Document library, Australian Government. 16:11. “Contextual Research for the Australian Qualifications Framework Review.” 16:11. https://docs.education.gov.au/system/files/doc/other/aqf_contextual_research_0.pdf. 

    “Employers’ Recruitment Insights.” n.d. Department of Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business. Accessed October 16, 2019. http://lmip.gov.au/default.aspx?LMIP/GainInsights/EmployersRecruitmentInsights. 

    Field, Claire. n.d. “EdTechXEurope 2019 – Reflections.” https://www.clairefield.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/EdTechXEurope-2019-reflections-final.pdf. 

    Jackman, Ruth. 2019. “Conversation Starter: MicroCredentials in the AQF.” EduGrowth. April 3, 2019. https://edugrowth.org.au/2019/04/03/conversation-starter-microcredentials-in-the-aqf/. 

    “Landmark Deakin Reports Offers Solutions to Micro-Credential Challenge | Deakin.” n.d. Accessed October 14, 2019. https://www.deakin.edu.au/about-deakin/media-releases/articles/landmark-deakin-reports-offers-solutions-to-micro-credential-challenge. 

    “Lifelong Learning And Reskilling: The Promise Of Micro Credentials | FYA.” n.d. Accessed October 14, 2019. https://www.fya.org.au/2018/09/21/lifelong-learning-and-reskilling-the-promise-of-microcredentials/. 

    “Making Micro-Credentials Work – for Learners, Employers and Providers | DTeach.” n.d. Accessed October 14, 2019. http://dteach.deakin.edu.au/2019/08/02/microcredentials/. 

    “Microcredentials Could Be a Game Changer for Educators. But Hard Questions Remain. – EdSurge News.” 2019. EdSurge. July 12, 2019. https://www.edsurge.com/news/2019-07-12-microcredentials-could-be-a-game-changer-for-educators-but-hard-questions-remain. 

    Raish, Victoria, and Emily Rimland. 2016. “Employer Perceptions of Critical Information Literacy Skills and Digital Badges.” College & Research Libraries 77 (1): 87–113. https://doi.org/10.5860/crl.77.1.87. 

    “Take Measure of Micro-Credentials.” n.d. Accessed October 16, 2019. https://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/take-measure-of-microcredentials/news-story/84c5b1346fea2a41371889d21ba9743e. 

    “Total VET Students and Courses 2018.” 2018, 34. https://www.ncver.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0031/6925090/Total-VET-students-and-courses-2018.pdf 

    Universities, Australian Technology Network of, and PricewaterhouseCoopers Australia. 2018. Lifelong Skills: Equipping Australians for the Future of Work. Deakin: Australian Technology Network of Universities. http://www.atn.edu.au/siteassets/publications/lifelong-skills.pdf. 

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    Adele Cochrane
    Content & Multimedia Assistant

    Adele is a writer and designer. She is fascinated with the way humans communicate, collaborate and improve things together.

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